Today we’d like to introduce you to Erika Neumayer.
Erika, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I started Rare Dirndl in 2010 at the age of 23, with a few patterns, money I had saved from working customer service, a small workspace (aka my parents’ dining room), and a whole lot of determination. But everyone always wants to know, of all the things… why have a business centered around dirndls? (The dress the St. Pauli girl wears and most commonly seen at Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany.)
I started doing German folk dancing at the age of 4 with the American Aid Society of German Descendants and I danced all throughout high school and college. I graduated with a degree with distinction in apparel design from Dominican University in 2009 and at that same time I was seeing the awesome dirndl designs that were coming out of Germany. I asked myself, “Why can’t we get any of these in the US?” I did more research and realized that there really was no place to get a dirndl that wasn’t embroidered polyester or small floral print cotton. I decided then and there it was time for a fresh take on the classic dress that I’ve spent essentially my entire life wearing!
In my first collection I knew I needed to have 2 things: an off-the-shoulder blouse that actually stays off-the-shoulder and an all leopard print dirndl. Those were 2 things I knew the market needed and that were going to get me noticed… and sure enough it did!
The business began to grow, sales increased and my “dirndl stuff” started to occupy not only my parents’ dining room, but also their living room, basement, shed, and when it started seeping into the kitchen my dad said, “I think it’s about time you start to look for your own space”. I soon found our current location in Lincoln Square. The space is open by appointment and during the Maifest and German Day weekends (weekend after Memorial Day and weekend after Labor Day at Lincoln, Leland & Western).
In the early days, I was sewing all the dirndls, blouses and aprons myself, but today I have built an incredible team that works with me to create and execute production on a larger scale (but not too large… everything is still made in small quantities to ensure exclusivity). I also make custom designs for those looking for something extra special. I LOVE working with customers on creating dirndls for them with inspirations like, “Black Swan”, “Rosie the Riveter”, and “Tim Burton” just to name a few. In the past 3 years, bridal and bridesmaids dirndls have become more popular and I’m the only person in the US making them. I’ve worked with brides having a traditional church wedding, casual garden wedding, and even Oktoberfest themed weddings!
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I wouldn’t say it was super rocky, but there are definitely tougher times throughout the year. Balancing the cash flow is tricky when you have a seasonal business. I am crazy busy from June through October, so I tend to do most of the production in the late winter early spring when I’m slow… but in order to grow and produce more you need more money. So it’s always a struggle to find the balance of how much I can produce in the slow season in order to keep up demand in the busy season (without emptying the bank account!).
Having confidence with my pricing is also a constant struggle. Americans (myself included) have become very accustomed to the price of fast fashion, so many people have serious sticker shock when the see the price of my dirndls. I realized early on that undervaluing my garments and “pricing to please Hans public” was a real quick way for me to find myself back waiting tables. I’ve learned over the years, that if someone doesn’t find the value in my work at the price, then they are simply not my ideal customer and that’s ok. But even after 7 years, sometimes I still have to remind myself that while I LOVE what I do, I’m in business to make money and provide for my family, so my products need to be profitable.
So let’s switch gears a bit and go into the Rare Dirndl story. Tell us more about the business.
Rare Dirndl makes dirndls and dirndl accessories that are so badass, women want to wear them whether they have a German event to go to or not. I specialize in modern takes on the traditional Bavarian dress and the pieces that go with it including blouses, bloomers, jewelry, purses etc. I’m most well known in the German community for putting spikes, chains, skulls, and unique details into my designs. Even though bright colors and some of the more basic styles sell easier… the dark and more extreme designs are what people associate with my name and how they remember me.
The other dirndl manufactures in the US have been in business for 25+ years and they’re designs tend to reflect that. My designs are unlike anything available in the US (and Germany for that matter) because they are all original designs, made here in Chicago, and I draw inspiration for everything from the classic Brothers Grimm fairytales to my travels abroad to Africa and India. I’m also the go-to for custom made designs, bridal and bridesmaids.
I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve been able to merge so many of my passions and aspects of my life into a business that is finally supporting me and my family. Being able to blend my love for my heritage, creativity, sewing talent and passion for design into one successful business is my greatest accomplishment… and making it profitable before my 30th birthday is also incredibly gratifying!
Has luck played a meaningful role in your life and business?
I’ve run into a few buckets of bad luck along the way, but my ability to quickly move on and quickly forget is a key factor in my success. I feel super lucky to have a marvelous assistant, Samantha. She also grew up in the German community and went to my Alma Mater, Dominican University, so she understands the niche and the culture around the business. She has allowed me to take a 6 week maternity leave after my son was born and keep up with growing demands for my custom designs.
- Dirndls range from $349-$789
- Blouses range from $49-$139
- Accessories and Jewelry starting at $15
- Address: Rare Dirndl Design Studio
(Open by appointment only)
5051 N. Lincoln Ave
Chicago, IL 60625
- Website: www.raredirndl.com
- Phone: 312-806-5099
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Instagram: https://instagram.com/raredirndl
- Facebook: https://facebook.com/RareDirndl
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/RareDirndln
- Yelp: www.yelp.com/biz/rare-dirndl-chicago
- Other: blog.raredirndl.com
Bridal Group image: Modern Lovebird
Working on hair: VKB Photography